Dance of Death

église de la Trinité

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Copyright (textes)
1996-2018 © Patrick Pollefeys

There are two dances of death in Istria, a region in former Yougoslavia. The oldest one is situated in the Croatian part of Istria, precisely in Beram. The second one lies in the Slovenian area, in Hrastovlje. In this little town there is a 12th century Trinity church adorned with many frescoes. Besides the dance of death, you can admire there several biblical scenes (the twelve Apostles, the Holy Trinity, the Three Magi, the creation of the world, the Passion etc.) The dance of death, discovered in 1950 and then properly restored, was painted by Jean de Kastav in 1490. It is different from other dances of death by the way its characters walk : they go from right to left, which is pretty unusual. Furthermore, the skeletons do not really dance ; they walk in procession towards a skeleton sitting on a Gothic chair, who takes the place of the usual narrator. The skeleton raises with his right hand the lid of a coffin ; a shovel and a hoe lie at his feet.

Fresque partie 1Fresque partie 2Fresque partie 3Fresque partie 4

Eleven characters are involved in this pictorial dance of death, which has no text. Beside the grave stand the pope, followed by the king, the queen, the cardinal, the bishop, the monk, the burgher, the usurer, the young man, the crippled, and finally a child jumping out of his cradle. The skeleton going with the pope points out the final destination of all characters: the grave. The ones that accompany the king, the cardinal, the monk and the burgher raise their right hand ; this gesture suggests a kind of salute. Strangely, only two skeletons (the bishop's and the crippled's) are carrying accessories. Notice the funny gesture of the usurer, who rummages in his bag with his right hand while handing a purse to Death with his left. The usurer is the only character that Death pulls by his clothes instead of his hand. He does not understand yet that his torturer cannot be bribed : Death is incorruptible and kills the rich as well as the poor.